Emigrants vs. Immigrants vs. Migrants

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What’s the difference between an emigrant and an immigrant, and where do migrants fit in? The answer, for both questions, is that it’s a matter of direction.

Emigrant, immigrant, and migrant all stem from the Latin verb migrare, which means “to move from one direction to another.” The distinction between the nearly identical-sounding first two terms is that emigrant describes a person from the perspective of coming from somewhere else, and immigrant refers to someone in the context of arrival at his or her destination. Simply said, emigrants come from somewhere, and immigrants go to somewhere. (To help you remember which is which, think of emigrants as emerging from and immigrants as being immersed into.)

Other terms for this phenomenon that include the root word migrant include in-migrant and out-migrant. Another synonym for emigrant, émigré, usually refers specifically to someone forced for political reasons to leave a country; the word is derived from the Latin verb emigrare by way of French. There is no equivalent term synonymous with immigrant, however.

A migrant, meanwhile, is a person or an animal who travels to and from two locations, as in the case of an economic migrant who leaves home to earn money in another country and returns periodically before going back to the other country again. (Migrator is an alternative.) Less often, migrant is used to refer to an animal that travels from one region to another depending on the seasons, as when geese in the Northern Hemisphere fly south for the winter as their habitat grows too cold and then return when the weather becomes milder again in the spring.

Nouns referring to movement to and from a place, respectively, are immigration and emigration; the verb forms are immigrate and emigrate. Migration describes the process of repeated movement from one place to another and back again (migrancy is a less common variant), and the verb form is migrate; migrant and migratory serve as adjectives, the former usually referring to humans and the latter to animals, and migrational might also modify a noun to refer to back-and-forth movements of humans or animals.

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2 thoughts on “Emigrants vs. Immigrants vs. Migrants”

  1. This is so needed. Even though I write this is one of those tricky issues and one that can easily cause errors! Thanks for clarifying for this writer.

  2. “Emigrants come from somewhere, and immigrants go to somewhere.”

    This isn’t quite wrong, per se, but the language is confusing, and should actually be reversed. An immigrant is someone who has come from somewhere, and an emigrant is someone who has left a place. You emigrate *from* one place and immigrate *to* another. The phrasing here overly complicates it. I hope whoever wrote this post finds some writing tips of their own. (yes, singular they).

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